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Film Title

The Wings of the Dove


Iain Softley


  • Helena Bonham Carter as Kate Croy
  • Alison Elliott as Milly Theale
  • Linus Roache as Merton Densher
  • Elizabeth McGovern as Susan
  • Charlotte Rampling as Aunt Maude
  • Michael Gambon as Lionel Croy

A passionate yet dark-hearted film about social status, friendship and a nefarious scheme, The Wings of the Dove successfully transports the novel of Henry James to a complex motion picture that is lovely to look at in terms of cinematography and engaging in a subtle way because of the characters in it and the convincing work from the cast in embodying them.

The year is 1910 and in London, Kate Croy is a woman with a tenuous foothold in society. The Wings of the Dove PosterAs the daughter of a now deceased mother, who was socially prominent but threw it away to be with Kate’s opium addicted father, Kate now has to rely on her unsmiling and severe Aunt Maude. Maude is a stern women who wants Kate to marry well and thus secure her return to the riches of society. But Kate is in fact in love with Merton Densher, a penniless journalist. Their love is forbidden and not deemed acceptable because if Kate were to marry him she would lose her inheritance and her chance of returning to high society. This is a fact Maude reminds spirited Kate of when she threatens to stop her inheritance if she doesn’t break off the relationship with Merton. Kate, under duress breaks off the relationship for a while as she attempts to find ways to ensure her survival. The arrival of beautiful and amiable American heiress Milly starts a friendship between Kate and her, as both women scoff at the machinations of society and how everyone is caught up in them. After overhearing someone discuss that the seemingly vivacious Milly is in fact dying, the wheels in Kate’s head start spinning as a plan begins to formulate in her mind. If she were to push Merton onto the beatific Milly, as it is obvious that the American heiress has feelings for him, she could very well leave her large fortune to him. If this were to happen, then Merton would have enough money to marry Kate and she could once more have the social status she so desires, without the stipulations and watchful eye of her spiteful Aunt Maude. Milly The Wings of the DoveMerton is shocked by Kate’s plan, but goes along as he doesn’t want to be without her. The intelligent Kate sets the plan in motion once she, Millie and Merton go on holiday to Venice, despite her own doubts which she keeps hidden of ripping apart the friendship with Milly and ruining her lover in Merton. Yet the plan was never going to go smoothly and that is exactly the course that it runs. The whole scheme involving Milly is ultimately fatally compromised by the genuine attraction and love that Merton begins to feel for her, that Kate begins to see and becomes jealous of as it wasn’t part of the scheme of hers. What she believed was a well thought out plan to ensure she would retain love and money becomes dangerous and highly personal, the likes of which none of them will come out unscathed.

Iain Softley excellently mounts this film by refusing to give into the demand for over the top drama. He immerses us in the world of the 1910’s that James clearly held more than a little disdain for, where everything was beneath the surface, money seemed to be everything and what is most shocking is hinted at rather than shown. I really liked the way Softley used this technique of having a deeper sense of ambiguity about the characters as it got me to think more about them and it didn’t render them just cardboard cut out characters you would expect to see in a period drama/romance. Kate and MertonThese characters become interesting and engaging throughout, with added complexity added by an intelligently structured and observant screenplay from Hossein Amini. Both Softley’s direction and Amini’s screenplay are in no rush to tell The Wings of the Dove’s story, but that gives it even more depth as we gradually see the changing events involving the trio of main characters and don’t feel shortchanged that parts seemed lacking. The characters in themselves are wholly intriguing, especially Kate who manages to be at once cold-blooded in her desire to have the man she wants and the money, yet also be strangely heartbreaking in the levels she goes to ensure this, which include manipulating a friend she has come to hold dear. Some may scoff at the deliberate pace employed during the piece; but in my book it lends The Wings of the Dove a welcome change from in your face theatrics and instead sheds light on the subtle machinations and plots going on that are gradually revealed. And on the visual front, The Wings of the Dove is a spellbinding watch, thanks to the sensual yet moody cinematography of Eduardo Serra, that lenses London and most successfully Venice. As the story moves on the colour palette darkens and subdued blues and purples fill the screen, functioning as a metaphor for the sadness and tragedy that will arise due to Kate’s plan. I can’t think of the last time I saw Venice look so spectacular on film. And combined with a sweeping score, that captures the inevitable melancholy the scheme will bring, on a visual and sonic level ( as well as acted and written), The Wings of the Dove practically soars.

In the complex lead role of passionate yet calculating Kate Croy, who sets the events of the story in motion, Helena Bonham Carter gives one of her best performances. Helena Bonham Carter as Kate CroyIt’s a performance of excellent subtlety and layers; Bonham Carter makes Kate have a desperation and that leads to her manipulative nature coming into full force to successfully execute her plot to gain both the love of her life and financial security, along with continued status. Helena Bonham Carter knows better than to give into the temptation to make Kate truly despicable and effectively sidesteps this path by imbuing her with depth, doubt, a sense of lingering guilt and jealousy to Kate as her plan comes crashing down around her. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part of Kate quite as well because Helena Bonham Carter gives her all to the part and emerges with a multi-dimensional portrayal. As the radiant but ailing Milly, Alison Elliott portrays her as a woman determined to live while she still can and is filled with deep love. Rather than a saintly victim, Elliott wonderfully shows that Milly is no naive woman but one that wants to see the good in things until her pain becomes unbearable. In the role of Kate’s lover Merton, Linus Roache exerts a cynical viewpoint that slowly becomes haunted and changed once he falls in love with the dying Milly. Merton The Wings of the DoveRoache makes up the third part of the compromised love triangle of the story and more than holds his own against Bonham Carter and Elliott. On the supporting front, Elizabeth McGovern gives an elegance to Milly’s companion Susan who could have been a forgettable character but remains memorable here. An imperious Charlotte Rampling has the right authority and nastiness to portray Aunt Maude, whose cruelty and deceptions is what leads Kate to follow in a similar suit. The only real actor wasted in this film is Michael Gambon who is given the thankless role of Kate’s opium fiend father that doesn’t require him to do a lot.

An excellently crafted rendering of the Henry James novel that makes the characters all complex and the events have a sense of slowly unfurling tragedy, The Wings of the Dove is intelligent and sophisticated film making that favours subtlety and implication rather than over the top and unrealistic histrionics. And if nothing else, The Wings of the Dove deserves showers of praise for the trio of central performances, particularly the one from Helena Bonham Carter.